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PL Sunday preview: Liverpool, Man Utd chasing top-four finishes

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Are Manchester United really in the top-four race? Will Liverpool sprint or stumble to the finish line? Are Burnley and Crystal Palace safe from relegation?

Questions to ponder ahead of Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Burnley vs. Manchester United — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

After eight sterling months (17 PL goals, 28 in all competitions), now begins the post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic era at Man United after the Swedish superstar suffered a “significant” knee injury (as did defender Marcos Rojo) during United’s Europa League triumph over Anderlecht on Thursday. 22 games unbeaten (12 wins, 10 draws) in league play, and United have not only kept pace with Liverpool and Manchester City in the race for a top-four finish, but closed the gap to six and four points, with two and one games in hand, respectively.

With Ibrahimovic out for the remainder of the season — and perhaps the rest of the calendar year — Marcus Rashford has already stepped up and assumed the role of line-leading, goal-scoring striker in his absence. Last weekend, Rashford started in place of a healthy Ibrahimovic and scored what turned out to be the winning goal against PL leaders Chelsea. The 19-year-old followed that up with the 107th-minute winner against Anderlecht to reach double-digit goals, including three in his last four games, for the first time in his career.

With the Manchester derby not far on the horizon (Thursday), a United win would move the Red Devils to within a single point of fourth-place Man City, with the two sides finally level on games played.

INJURIES: Burnley — QUESTIONABLE: Sam Vokes (hamstring), Johann Gudmundsson (knee) | Man United — OUT: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (knee), Marcos Rojo (knee), Juan Mata (groin), Chris Smalling (knee), Phil Jones (toe)

[ MORE: Chelsea beat Tottenham to reach FA Cup final ]

Liverpool vs. Crystal Palace — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Unbeaten in their last seven PL games (five wins, two draws), Liverpool’s disastrous start to 2017 (zero wins in their first five games after New Years Day) has long faded from the rearview mirror. With signature victories over Arsenal and Everton, plus a convincing win over Tottenham Hotspur separating the above streaks, Jurgen Klopp‘s first full season at Anfield sits 450 minutes from achieving a goal thought improbable or impossible by many back in August: Champions League qualification.

Klopp, for one, is wary of coming up against Christian Benteke, not long a former Liverpool striker, in red-hot form (three goals and an assist in his last four games — two wins and a draw for Crystal Palace).

“He is obviously another player with confidence, in a good run and all that stuff,” Klopp said. “Like it is always when you play against Zlatan, other strikers, these kinds of strikers — tall, good with their back to the goal — you have to avoid the crosses and you have to avoid the passes. That’s how it works.

“If we let them cross 50 balls it’s pretty likely he will have a few dangerous headers. That’s not his only strength, of course, but that’s a real strength.”

INJURIES: Liverpool — OUT: Sadio Mane (knee), Adam Lallana (thigh), Jordan Henderson (foot), Danny Ings (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Joel Matip (knock), Daniel Sturridge (hip), Ragnar Klavan (knee) | Crystal Palace — OUT: Scott Dann (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Loic Remy (calf), James Tomkins (calf)

Multiple reports: Watford set to hire Gracia as manager

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Watford looks set to appoint Javi Gracia to its managerial position, hours after firing Marco Silva and blaming Everton for the manager.

[ MORE: Watford fires Silva, blames Everton ]

Gracia led Malaga to eighth and ninth place finishes in La Liga between 2014-16 before spending last season at Rubin Kazan.

Gracia, 47, has led promotion campaigns in Spain and has plenty of experience with perceived smaller clubs battling the drop zone.

Watford will hope the Hornets don’t reach that point, still five points clear of the drop after flirting with the Top Seven for the first quarter of the Premier League season.

Latest: Sunday medicals for Mkhitaryan, Sanchez

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Henrikh Mkhitaryan has agreed to join Arsenal from Manchester United, clearing the path for Alexis Sanchez to join the Old Trafford set.

[ MORE: 2 Robbies on the deal ]

The BBC is reporting that both players will undergo medicals at their proposed new clubs on Sunday ahead of a straight swap deal.

Sanchez, 29, has scored 80 goals for Arsenal since arriving before the 2014-15 campaign, including 30 last season.

Mkhitaryan turns 30 this summer, and has struggled at Manchester United since posting five assists in his first three matches of the season.

[ MORE: Watford sacks Silva ]

He was, however, a combination of Sanchez and Mesut Ozil in his final season at Borussia Dortmund, scoring 23 goals with 32 assists.

This could be win-win, as Mkhitaryan at his best is a like-for-like replacement for Mesut Ozil should the German leave in the summer and Sanchez is a more proven PL commodity (though his attitude should be a major question for the United room).

Watford fires Silva, blames Everton

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Watford has fired Marco Silva as manager, and it’s blaming Everton.

The Hornets are 1W-2D-8L in their last 11 Premier League matches after Saturday’s 2-0 loss at Leicester City, and have won just three in the league since the Toffees sacked Ronald Koeman on Oct. 23.

[ REPORT: Stoke to add hometown Harrison from NYCFC ]

Watford sat fifth in the table at that point, and has dropped to 10th. That’s five points clear of the drop zone and eight points back of eighth.

Silva was chased hard by Everton, and Watford rejected all advances for the Portuguese boss. The Toffees ended up hiring Sam Allardyce in a move which has also gone south.

Here’s the guts of Watford’s released statement:

The Club is convinced the appointment of Silva was the right one and had it not been for the unwarranted approach by a Premier League rival for his services we would have continued to prosper under his leadership.

The catalyst for this decision is that unwarranted approach, something which the Board believes has seen a significant deterioration in both focus and results to the point where the long-term future of Watford FC has been jeopardised.

Watford will appoint its ninth manager since the start of the 2012-13 season. It faces Southampton in the FA Cup on Saturday before a midweek league visit to fellow relegation struggler Stoke City on Jan. 31.

Silva is the eighth manager fired since the beginning of the Premier League season, joining Frank De Boer, Craig Shakespeare, Ronald Koeman, Slaven Bilic, Tony Pulis, Paul Clement, and Mark Hughes.

Liga MX wrap: Pachuca earns first win, Leon stays unbeaten

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All of Saturday’s action from around Mexico’s top flight…

Pachuca 3-1 Lobos BUAP

A strong first-half push from the hosts was all Pachuca needed on Saturday night to earn their first victory of the 2018 Clausura season. Angel Sagal brought the home side in front after just 10 minutes off of a near-post header, before Pachuca’s lead soon doubled 14 minutes later from the penalty spot when strike Franco Jara converted on the dead-ball attempt.

Just prior to halftime, Pachuca was out to a 3-0 advantage when 20-year-old outside back Erick Aguirre tallied his first goal for the club.

Last-place side Lobos got on the board three minutes into the second stanza via a finish from Heriberto Olvera, however, it wasn’t enough to provide anything more than a consolation for the visiting side.

Necaxa 1-3 Chivas Guadalajara

Mexican international Alan Pulido made it a dream start for the visitors from Guadalajara at the Estadio Victoria, however, that lead was cancelled out in first-half stoppage time after Carlos Gonzalez leveled the match up at 1-1.

The difference proved to be with 25 minutes left to play, when a goalkeeping error by Marcelo Barovero allowed Chivas to regain possession inside the Necaxa penalty area, before Ronaldo Cisneros tapped home the winner.

Then, a third goal came just prior to the end of regulation when Edwin Hernandez killed the game off for Matias Almeyda’s men, who also earned their first victory of the Clausura season.

Rest of Saturday’s Liga MX action

Cruz Azul 0-0 Club Leon
Queretaro 0-0 Tigres UANL
Monterrey 0-0 Club Tijuana

Sunday’s matches

UNAM vs. Club America — 1 p.m. ET
Santos Laguna vs. Morelia — 7 p.m. ET